“Taking Authority” by Deborah Sokolove

Taking Authority by Deborah Sokolove

2009_epiphany_cover_lg.jpgFebruary 1, 2009, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany


Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

Like more than a million other folks, I stood on the Mall last week, with frozen feet and tears streaming down my cheeks, watching the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. And I remember thinking, it was really good liturgy! A steady rhythm announced the entry of this or that dignitary, beginning with the least important and ending with the former, current, and about-to-be Presidents. There were moments of humor, and moments of high seriousness. There was music. There were prayers. There was, okay, not a sermon, but a speech that certainly fit the occasion. There was just the right combination of formality and human connection, of celebration and sober recommitment to the hard work ahead for our new officials, and for our nation. As he walked toward the podium where he would take his oath of office, Obama’s face showed his awareness of the weight of the authority he was about to accept.

A few weeks ago, I attended the ordination of a Lutheran acquaintance. It, too, was full of ceremony. The ordinand’s many clerical friends and mentors were resplendent as they processed down the aisle in their white albs and red stoles. The bishop’s cope glittered with gold embroidery. The choir, in the balcony behind the congregation, sounded like a flight of angels, and the majestic organ was played with exceptional skill and passion. At one point, the ordinand knelt on the steps leading up to the altar with all the clergy gathered around him. They all laid hands on his head and shoulders. As the bishop questioned him about his commitments and intentions, and he replied "I will, and I ask God to help me." A little later he was lead by members of the congregation to the font, the pulpit, and the altar-table, in turn. At each place, he was charged with the authority and responsibility to baptize, preach the Word of God, and to celebrate Eucharist, respectively.

I no longer recall the words that were used, but echoing in my mind was the charge used in Methodist ordinations: "Take thou authority to preach the Word of God, and to minister the holy Sacraments in the Congregation, where thou shalt be lawfully appointed thereunto."

As I watched, I wondered what it would be like if each of us were welcomed into our places of authority – our homes, our jobs, our volunteer activities, our mission groups – with such formality, such seriousness of purpose, and so much prayer. Would we be better equipped to do our work to the glory of God? Would we bear the authority under which we work with better grace?

The Hebrew Scripture and Gospel readings today are all about authority. The Deuteronomy passage, which speaks about prophets, is set within a larger context of rules for living together in community. There are a number of theories about who composed this book and when, but most scholars seem to think the version that we have today was completed at some time after the return from the Babylonian exile, around 535 BCE.

The book as a whole is constructed as a series of sermons, or speeches, in which Moses prepares the people to enter the Promised Land without him. Immediately before the passage we heard today, Moses talks about the authority of office. He reminds those who are in leadership positions that judges and officials should not show partiality, nor accept bribes, but rather decide all issues fairly and with justice, "so that you may live and occupy the land that the Holy One, your God is giving you." Then, he says, the people (or God – it’s a little ambiguous) may select a king from among themselves. But the king should be careful not to accumulate too many horses or too much gold or too many wives, lest he turn away from God in the pursuit of power and pleasure. The king’s authority comes from God, and he risks God’s anger if he starts to lord it over the people rather than serving them. It seems to be a timely reminder, given the current economic and political situation. Actually, it’s a good reminder to any of us who are managers, or parents, or have any position in which we have authority over others.

Moses then turns his attention to the priests, who are called to make sacrifices and serve in the name of God. They will not have any land of their own because their priestly duties will occupy them so much that they will not be able to farm or tend flocks and herd. Instead, they will get what they need from the things that the people bring to sacrifice. They, too, have authority vested in them, to help the people stay connected to God; and the responsibility to be in right relationship with one another, with the people, and with the divine.

Finally, after spelling out the rights and responsibilities of judges, kings and priests Moses turns his attention to prophecy, as we just heard. Noting that that the people should not cast spells or look for oracles from the dead, as their polytheistic neighbors do, Moses tells them that they can find out what is in store for them through prophets, who will speak God’s word. It isn’t clear how someone got to be a prophet, but the test for prophetic authority was clear, if problematic. The people would know that the prophet really had God’s authority, but only when the thing that had been prophesied did or did not come to pass. I’m not exactly sure how that was supposed to help, but the next part made it even easier to tell true prophets from false ones: anyone who prophesied in the name of other gods, or lied about having received authority from God, would die. That’s a pretty severe penalty – no wonder people say they are nervous when they stand at the lectern to preach!

In the Gospel that we just heard, Jesus is more like a prophet than a king, a judge, or a priest. The writer tells us that Jesus teaches in the synagogue "as one having authority, and not as the scribes." And then, as if to underline his authentic call, Jesus successfully commands an unclean spirit to come out of someone who had been suffering from what might be called "possession." Clearly, Jesus passes the two tests set out by Moses. What he says will happen really does happen; and he doesn’t die. At least, that’s how I read the juxtaposition of these two passages.

Jesus, of course, is more than a prophet, but no one really knew that early in his career. What people did know was that he had a kind of personal authority, or charisma. This is the authority that comes from the way one speaks, the way one carries oneself, the assumptions one has about one’s right to do whatever it is that one is doing. This is what the people sensed when Jesus taught in the synagogue, or cured the possessed person of the unclean spirit. Jesus acted like he knew what he was doing. When he explained a passage in scripture, he was not merely repeating something he had learned from another teacher, but bringing his own, unique understanding and experience to it.

This was, perhaps, more radical than we, who are accustomed to the authority of personal experience, can easily see. In Jesus’ day, those who taught in the synagogues relied very heavily on tradition. They would begin to explain a passage by saying, "Rabbi Gamliel says….but Rabbi Hillel says… and Rabbi Shmuel says…" and so on. The more ancient the authority, the more revered, all the way back to Moses.

We can get a flavor of this when we think about the meaning of our Constitution. For many people, what the Framers meant is the most conclusive argument; for others, the Constitution is, as they say, a "living document" whose meaning evolves over time. People in Jesus’ day were strict constructionists when it came to scripture. So for Jesus to say, as is reported elsewhere, "You have heard it said that…but I say…." was astonishing. Nobody ever talked like that. Nobody ever claimed their own, independent, personal authority to understand the words of the sacred texts. So for Jesus to do so was an affront to many, and a revelation to others.

Jesus, of course, had no formal office, no prescribed role, no special title. It was only later, after his death and resurrection, that people started referring to him as "Son of God" or "Bread of Life." Yes, his followers did call him Rabbi, or Teacher, but that was in response to the fact that he taught them, not because someone had hired him or ordained him to that role. "Master," another word his followers seemed to use, was a term of respect, not unlike the use of "Sir" today. And while "Lord" came to be associated with the Name of God by the time the Gospels were written, I don’t know that those who called him that before the crucifixion necessarily thought in those terms. I haven’t asked any scholars about this, but here’s what I do know:

When we read the Hebrew Scripture and come across the word LORD in upper case letters, the underlying Hebrew word is the special, 4-letter name of God that nobody really knows how to pronounce. The reason we see upper-case LORD in our Bibles is that when Jews see that special, 4-letter combination that we might write as YHWH, what they say is "Adonai." And that, literally translated, means "my lord." Or "my lords," except it is understood as the plural of majesty, not that there is more than one God. So, Adonai (in Hebrew) and LORD (in English) are ways of getting around trying to say the unpronounceable Name of God. And, until relatively recently, those who published translations of the Bible were careful to follow the ancient convention of not trying to figure out how to say it. As people know who were in the recent class on Amy Jill Levine’s book, The Misunderstood Jew, I the nineteenth century scholars hadon’t tried to find the "right" pronunciation. But that’s a subject for another da.

In any case, it happens that in colloquial, everyday Hebrew, one of the ways to say "Mister" is to say "Adoni," which is the singular form of Adonai. And, like Adonai, it is most often translated as "Lord," but written in lower-case letters.   

So, I wonder – the New Testament was written in Greek, but the people it talks about were speaking Aramaic, which is so much like Hebrew that I cannot tell the difference. So, when Jesus’ disciples called him "Lord", where they thinking about the word they used for God, or were they just calling him "Mister"?

OK, enough fooling around with words and back to authority. Jesus may be the ultimate example of personal authority, but lots of people seem to have at least some measure of it. Sometimes, we call it natural leadership ability. Just look at any random group of children. Sometimes it’s the oldest, or strongest, or most athletic one who decides whether to play cops-and-robbers or hide-and-seek or whatever else kids play these days. But often, it’s something else, some inner quality of decisiveness, charm, or something indefinable but nonetheless real that makes a group follow one person’s suggestions while discounting another’s.  

A few steps down the hall from my office, the people who work in the Leadership Center try to understand how this happens, to codify it, and teach it to people who don’t have it naturally. We do that here at Seekers, too, when we talk about authority at the point of one’s gift, and help people find both their gifts and their authority in mission groups and other areas of our life together. But while I am fully convinced that it is possible to teach both drawing and leadership skills to almost anyone, I’m guessing that charisma, natural authority-like artistic talent-is often a mysterious gift given to some in a greater measure than to others.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between natural authority and the authority of office. I like to think that I have some measure of natural authority, and that my years in Seekers has taught me a little about both leading and following. But, in my current working life, I now am learning some new things about what it means to have the authority of office. In case any of you has missed the news, I have been appointed as the new Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, following the retirement of its founder and long-time Director, Catherine Kapikian. Since the announcement was made and publicized on the seminary web site, people have been calling and coming up to congratulate me practically every day, which is pretty cool.

But with the new title comes not only authority, but responsibility. Suddenly, people pay a little more attention when I speak in a meeting, so I have to be a bit more careful about my off-the-cuff remarks. Suddenly, I have to make decisions about issues that I didn’t even know existed a month ago. Suddenly, I have the authority to speak for the Center in ways that simply were not possible in 15 years of working there in other capacities. Suddenly, I get the emergency calls from the Artist-in-Residence who has no heat in her apartment. Suddenly, the buck stops with me. And I understand authority in a new way. In my new role, I find that people listen to me a little more carefully, defer to me a little more readily, are a little more willing to help me with one thing or another, and expect me to take charge more often. It’s subtle, but it’s very real.

A few days after his ordination, the new Lutheran pastor I spoke of earlier reflected on presiding at his first Eucharist service. He wrote:

At my church the presiding minister wears a chausable throughout the entire service.  From the moment I put on this massive – almost suffocating – cloak-like vestment I felt as if I were carrying an extra burden, a new responsibility.  This extra layer of liturgical garb even further reinforced to me that I am a minister of the church, bound by and dedicated to a tradition much larger than me or my personality, gifts, or skills.  Wearing the chausable was incredibly humbling.

I don’t wear a chausable to work, but I feel that kind of unexpected weight every day.  I am aware of what it means to have people depend on me, to want something from me, to be not only myself, but a symbol of something larger than myself.

As I take this new authority, I am profoundly aware that it could not have happened without the prayers, the support, the love of Seekers Church. Nineteen years ago, I came to Seekers and, shortly thereafter was baptized, reborn into my new identity in Christ. From that time forward, Seekers have walked with me on an amazing journey. You have wept with me when I lost my job; believed me when I said that I had been called to art ministry, even though I had no idea at the time what that meant; and encouraged me as I studied and wrote and painted and struggled. You taught me that to be a Christian is to live not only for myself, but for the healing of the world. s a servant to all, to pass on the gifts that I have been given.

In a few minutes, we will gather around the Table of the Heavenly Feast, and share in Holy Communion with God and with one another. As we give thanks to God for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let us take our authority in the priesthood of all believers. Let us know ourselves as one, small part of the great, universal, mystical, holy Body of Christ, broken and poured out for the healing of the world.


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